A time when the British struggled to get workers to build structures in Mananthavady

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Labour crunch does not appear to be the bane of the present. If among our biggest imports today are workers from Bihar, Bengal and elsewhere, archival documents show the problem persisted in Kerala centuries ago, albeit in a different way. The British literally had to tear their hair apart to get workers to build a few structures at Mananthavady. The problem, of course, was multi-pronged. Labour shortage then was directly linked to the tough terrain of Wayanad of yore. From the letters written 200 years ago, one realises the effort it was to tame the wilderness of Wayanad. For the men from the plains, Wayanad was the one-stop destination to illness, most of them severe. To woo workers to this territory, the British attempt many tricks and higher pay was one of them.

W. Ravenshaw, the superintendent engineer, is a worried man when he writes to the Secretary of the Military Board on June 1, 1814. Construction of what is described as “public buildings” were to begin soon in Mananthavady; but workers were not in sight. “I am concerned to state that scarcely a man is to be found in the country; they must therefore be furnished either from Malabar or Seringapatam,” writes a flustered Ravenshaw.

Since the engineer has no authority, he writes to the Board to put pressure on the Magistrates of these two regions to provide workers. He knows it is next to impossible to get labourers to Wayanad and he recommends taking enough safety measures to keep them once there. He writes, “It would be advisable for the Magistrate to enter into a written agreement with the people and fix their pay, otherwise I fear we shall never be able to keep them to their work.”

The engineer suggests getting all the materials in place before the workers come. “It will be necessary to have the greater part of the materials ready previous to sending the workmen to the spot or much time and expense will be lost owing to the many difficulties attending the execution of any buildings at Manantoddy,” he writes.

The engineer also desires a personal staff which includes a writer and a maistry and he recommends a pay of 15 and 10 pagodas for them. A better salary, he argues, is a must if people were to step into this hilly town. “They will not go to unhealthy places without something above the common pay.”

Considering the pressing matter, the Military Board responds positively and instructs the Magistrates of Malabar and Seringapatam to provide assistance in procuring workers. The Magistrate of Malabar, T.H. Baber, sends forth the message to his men in Wayanad to provide all help to the engineer. But Baber also sends to Ravenshaw an accompanying note. From the note one understands that getting labour in Wayanad was never a one-off issue. Baber had received similar requests for help earlier too. The note he encloses with his letter to Ravenshaw is actually a letter he wrote to the Sub Assistant Commissioner General of Seringapatam who had come to Baber with a request similar to the engineer’s.

At that time too Baber had instructed his “darougha” to offer all help. But the problems in Wayanad were also related to the way of life practised in the region. For those into building structures here, the problems were many, says Baber. For one, there were no stone cutters. “There are no stone cutters in Wayanad. None of the buildings of the natives being constructed with stone and those from the low countries would not from the very great dread of sickness proceed to that country unless tempted by higher wages,” he writes.

Construction in Wayanad is an expensive affair, he adds. Contractors had to be found who will provide stones at Mananthavady, of course at a much higher price. When it comes to assistance from inhabitants, Baber says, nothing would happen “voluntarily”. The local landowners of “Nairs, Goudas and Chettiars” have to be cajoled and persuaded to part with what Baber calls their “slaves.” In effect, he asserts, Ravenshaw does not have an easy task at hand.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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